At the end of an LA Times profile of Matt Drudge, journalism teacher and expert Tom Rosenstiel admits that Drudge has “come to play an important role”:
In a study of the online medium’s election-night performance in November, Rosenstiel says his group found that Drudge quickly sent his audience to the best destinations. “He had figured out in real time what we figured out more conclusively in hindsight,” Rosenstiel says.
When the balance of the Senate came down to the race in Virginia, for example, Drudge linked to the secretary of state’s office for updated tallies. The resulting flood of visitors crashed the government site.
Still, Rosenstiel says, “Drudge is vulnerable because he’s not producing anything. He’s just got muscle through his links to the work of others.”
One day, he says, news organizations are going to say, “We’re not going to give this stuff away to Drudge. We need to get some source of revenue to subsidize the creation of the content.”
Although Drudge has spent years taking aim at the mainstream media, Rosenstiel says, the truth is he needs their links for his livelihood.
“The dirty little secret about Drudge,” Rosenstiel says, “is that he’s a gateway for conventional journalism.”
I found this a fascinatingly muddled perspective. On the one hand, Rosenstiel says, Drudge is doing something better than the big newsrooms: figuring out where to send his visitors in real time. On the other hand, he’s vulnerable because all he’s doing is linking to other people. Rosenstiel describes a situation in which the big, established publications know that Drudge can send them firehose-level traffic; yet he somehow concludes that it’s Drudge who “needs” the media’s “links for his livelihood.” In fact, he’s just described the precise reverse. Then there’s the threat that the media might somehow stop “giving this stuff away” to Drudge. But nobody’s giving anything away to Drudge — when we publish on the Web, we hand the URL to everyone. How exactly would you boycott Drudge without also sequestering your work from the entire Web?
I’m no fan of Drudge; I’ll visit other filters, thank you. But vast swarms of people clearly like his approach. He had a first-mover advantage but he’s also found a formula that works. If many people are choosing Drudge as their “front page” over the front pages of newspaper sites and magazine sites and portals, the appropriate question to ask is, why? Why is a low-budget two-person operation satisfying some significant chunk of the public better than the formidable resources of the big newsrooms?
Rosenstiel, lost in the same “who stole our business model?” fog that is enveloping so many of his colleagues at the journalism schools and in the newsrooms, doesn’t even notice this question buried in his contradictory statements. Sure, these new Web news models erode the underlying media businesses that pay newsroom salaries. But the answer isn’t to ignore customers’ preferences and threaten to take your marbles home. That’s the RIAA strategy the music industry pursued, and look how successful it proved.
Editors and publishers need to start by accepting reality. Drudge’s neo-Walter Winchell act is simply one example of what the Web does to the news: It places new “front ends” on the mainstream news back-end — remixing new front pages to the pool of news the network aggregates. The algorithmic editing of sites like Memeorandum is another example. The communal editing of Digg is another. Here’s yet another, which, apparently, springs in part from the efforts of Michael “Burn Rate” Wolff. (See this piece in today’s Times about Wolff and Newser.) Despite that, I rather like it. (In fact, it’s where I found that Drudge profile in the first place.)
Why aren’t today’s newspaper editors conducting more of these experiments themselves? Why have they ceded the field to twentysomething entrepreneurs and marginal mavericks? Obviously, institutional inertia, turf-protection reflexes and disappearing-profit panic are all potent forces. On a deeper level, I think most editors just hate the idea that readers might prefer an alternative mix of their news product. They’d rather go down with their ships than accept a demotion of their authority.
[tags]matt drudge, newser, newspaper industry, tom rosenstiel[/tags]
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“The resulting flood of visitors …”
More page views, more ad revenue. Tom Rosenstiel may be expending energy lamenting the (real or apparent) shift in power away from the MSM; I guarantee others will be thinking of that simple fact – more page views, more ad revenue – and wondering how to game it.
I’m not an economist, but I can’t help noticing that economics plays an important, if easily missed, part everywhere online. From one point of view, why even report the news when you can manipulate stock prices by making it up? —
At bottom it’s all built on speed of communication. A hundred years ago many people had scarcely travelled outside their own village. Nowadays an interesting story – or a fake planted one – is halfway around the world in the blinking of an eye.